Many Web merchants waited until the Monday after Thanksgivingdubbed "Black Monday" or "Cyber Monday" by retail analyststo introduce their holiday sales specials. Others marked the day by extending or expanding the deals they launched before most turkeys were even in the oven. Whichever way they play it, one thing has become clear: it's the official start of online shopping season. "It's the first sales spike of the year," says Jeremy Shermak of ComScore Networks, an e-commerce tracking firm. ComScore reported that online spending on Monday reached $485 million, a 26 percent jump from the same day last year (the figure excludes travel). Overall traffic to shopping sites increased by 35 percent, according to Web hosting firm Akamai Technologies.
Online sales have been brisk every year on this day since Internet shopping hit the mainstream in the late 90s, pumped up by better sites and faster Internet connections. Why Monday? It's when Americans head back to their office computers with high-speed Net accessonly 60% of home Web users have high-speed hookups, according to ComScoreafter the long weekend, with holiday shopping on the brain.
The question is, where to start? Odds are good that your favorite online store is running some sort of special (discounts, gifts with purchase, free shipping) today43% of Web retailers said they planned to do so, according to a Shop.org survey. Comparison shopping search enginessites that make it their mission to ferret out the best prices (and are more popular than ever, attracting 54.7 million visitors in October alone, 52% more traffic than the same month last year) may not have up-to-the-minute information, so it's always best to double-check price and availability directly on the seller's site. Shopzilla.com, for example, has handy "Go To Store" buttons next to each search return.
Because each comparison site pulls together its information in a different way, each is likely to deliver a unique set of search returns, so try several: Shopping.com, PriceGrabber.com and Froogle.com are among the most popular. CNET.com focuses on consumer electronics and computer gear and delivers expert reviews along with its "Compare Prices" feature.
Many of these comparison shopping sitesparticularly newcomers breaking into what's become a very competitive fieldwill help you zero in on sales. For example, click "Coupons" on the home page of Brilliantshopper.com (a new service that's still in beta); there you can browse various offers from specific merchants and use the direct links to get to the relevant web page on the seller's own website (like Circuit City's $400 rebate on TVs).
Smarter.com highlights coupons and discounts in its search results. Shop.com has a separate On Sale section. And Dealio.com offers a downloadable toolbar that alerts you when it finds the item you're considering for a lower price somewhere else. Truly dedicated bargain hunters should do some digging at Fatwallet.com and Gottadeal.com. Both sites post timely info on who's got what for how much, along with tips and tricks aimed at saving you even more money.
If you absolutely must go to a physical store, let ShopLocal.com help you plan a surgical strike. The site's primary purpose is not to handle online transactions but to search for items in stores within a 10-mile radius of your zip code. Click the sparkly "Holiday" button at the top of the home page to browse current sales. Or check Cairo.com, which lists what's on sale near you (and how long the sale will last) as advertised in store circulars. Neither site can tell you whether the store that carries the item still has it in stock, but they do provide addresses, phone numbers, maps and directions. With any luck, you won't have to stand in line outside.